ST. LOUIS — Kris Bryant already was gone by the time the Cubs took the field for their game against the Cardinals on Wednesday night.
And whether he got enough rest to return Thursday from the “hamstring fatigue” that had him sidelined, the bigger overall point is that it didn’t take much on this night to imagine what the Cubs might start to look like within the next couple of years — if not the next couple of weeks.
In fact, you could see it all the way from Madison, Alabama, where Double-A star outfielder Brennen Davis slugged a two-run homer and a three-run shot against the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
By Saturday, you might be able to see it from Columbus, Ohio, where left-hander Justin Steele makes his third start for Triple-A Iowa (after 6 2/3 scoreless in his first two) as the Cubs stretch him out for a role in their big-league rotation sometime after the July 30 trade deadline.
“There is a lot surrounding this team right now,” said future-core centerpiece Nico Hoerner, who kept one eye focusing on now even as he talked with NBC Sports Chicago about what the next-generation Cubs’ contender might look like.
“I think there have been some nice flashes this year, especially on the pitching side with Keegan and Steele and Adbert, obviously, and some glimpses of some other guys,” he said.
Keegan is rookie Keegan Thompson, who got two big strikeouts in the ninth Wednesday to help keep a 2-2 game in check for closer Craig Kimbrel, who got the final out of the inning in what might one of the final glimpses in a Cubs uniform we get of the Hall of Fame-caliber closer.
Rookie Adbert Alzolay, who was the Cubs’ top starter for several weeks earlier this season, starts Thursday’s series finale as the Cubs try to earn a split of the four-gamer.
Whether Bryant, Javy Báez, Anthony Rizzo or Willson Contreras are still on the roster the next time the Cubs are in St. Louis with playoff implications in play, how quickly those pitchers develop and perform will probably have more to say about how long it’ll take to get to that big series.
Hoerner, who has been one of the Cubs’ best hitters this season and scored both runs Wednesday, also will have a lot to say about that timeline — his exceptional play in the field offering another reminder on this night of what the potential might be for the next generation.
But how good will that group be? How fast will it arrive? Will that pitching stick and have impact? Will ownership spend enough to speed the process and lower the pain of what team president Jed Hoyer says is not a rebuild?
Is Hoerner a star in the making? Is Davis close enough to start to project as an impact piece?
Hoerner was a Gold Glove finalist as a rookie last year, and by the time he matched his career high for plate appearances in a season in Wednesday’s ninth, he was hitting .321 with a .389 on-base percentage.
Davis’ homers were his third and fourth homers in the last four games — which doesn’t even count the two he hit to earn the Futures Game MVP honors 10 days earlier.
He just moved into the top 20 on FanGraphs' prospect ranking, and he’s put himself into position for a possible promotion to Iowa this summer — which, in turn, would put him in position for a possible big-league debut next season in a fastest-case scenario.
“He’s just a great guy and someone I really look forward to having a chance to play with at some point,” Hoerner said of Davis, who was in big-league camp this past spring. “And [Single-A shortstop] Ed Howard. I hit with him some this offseason. He’s a little further behind obviously just being drafted [in last year’s first round].
“No rush with either of those guys,” Hoerner said, “but it’s good to know there’s special people like that in the organization that hopefully I have the chance to play with in the future.”
It’s a future you can already start to see, whether a lot of fans — or some players — want to see it yet or not.
Parts were definitely visible over the St. Louis horizon on Wednesday.
And by the end of next week (this week?) the look of a core that has the most successful six-year run in franchise history will almost certainly be altered dramatically — if only by what looks increasingly like an imminent deadline deal involving Bryant.
At the very least, the agenda will shift dramatically with the plan for Steele, and maybe an increased role for Thompson, starting to take shape. Along with whatever new dimensions might be added to the farm system by August.
“It’s a different thing,” Hoerner said of going through a clubhouse-rattling trade deadline (albeit, knowing he’s sticking around).
“There is going to be a combination of us that’s here and still playing baseball games that are important, and you make the most of those and you go forward,” he said. “So regardless of what combination of people is here, it’s still going to be a situation where you show up every day and control what you can and develop and work with people and enjoy it.”
He does expect an echo from the recent championship core to carry into the next generation, regardless of how many are there — or not there — by the time they’re back in St. Louis for that next series that matters.
“My exposure to the majors leagues has been through a group of guys that have won a World Series and created a lifetime of experiences for the fans,” he said.
Until then, they have one more game in this series this week, he said after Wednesday’s tough loss — with Hoerner, perhaps fittingly, standing in the on-deck circle when the last out was made in the top of the 10th.
“I’ve never been around a team at the trade deadline, but I think playing the Cardinals, honestly, is really nice to have at this time just because the purpose and focus is so obvious,” he said. “It’s always on winning, but especially when you play in an atmosphere like this — close games, fun games — that makes the baseball kind of take care of itself.
“Just focus on the now as much as we can.”